City: Suit on Pistons move threatens recovery

Louis Aguilar

Attorneys representing the city of Detroit portrayed a last-minute lawsuit against the deal to bring the Detroit Pistons back to the Motor City as a “package of frivolous claims” designed to damage the city’s “delicate recovery.”

In the federal lawsuit, City Clerk candidate D. Etta Wilcoxon and Highland Park activist Robert Davis contend the move by the Pistons from Auburn Hills to Detroit this fall should be stopped until city and Wayne County voters have a chance to decide whether taxpayer-backed bonds should be used as part of the deal.

The suit argues Detroit and Wayne County residents have a right to vote, either in August or November, on the bonds before Detroit City Council members vote next week on the deal.

“The loss of tax increment financing at this critical moment could upend the complex financial package supporting the Pistons’ move to Detroit, and the resulting changes could cause the Pistons to reverse their plans,” according to the city’s argument that were filed Thursday. “The loss of the Pistons would cost Detroit millions of dollars in tax revenue and would threaten the burgeoning growth of the City’s entertainment district.”

The pair of local activists have made “a package of frivolous claims, timed to cause the greatest possible risk to the City’s delicate recovery,” the lawyers said in the filing.

The city’s lawyers want Federal Judge Mark Goldsmith to dismiss the lawsuit because the litigants lack standing, fail to make claims under Michigan law and don’t prove a violation of federal voting rights, among other things.

A hearing is scheduled for noon Monday on the litigants’ request for a temporary restraining order to block the funding for the Little Caesars Arena and a new Pistons headquarters.

The lawsuit came as City Council began to approve a series of measures that could essentially seal the complex deal to have the Pistons play in Little Caesars Arena starting in September, the first time the National Basketball Association team would have its home court in Detroit since 1978.

On Tuesday, City Council is expected to vote on whether to approve the use of $34.5 million in taxpayer-backed bonds to pay for changes at the Little Caesars Arena to accommodate the Pistons. That vote is one of the last local government approvals needed for the deal.

Davis and Wilcoxon contend two Detroit taxing authorities also are illegally using tax revenues intended for the city’s public school students and Wayne County parks to finance construction of the facilities.

Attorneys representing the city used such phrases as “fundamental error” and “lack of merit” in asking Goldsmith to dismiss the lawsuit.

So far, about 62 percent or nearly $539 million of the Little Caesars Arena project is from private financing and the rest — $324 million overall — is government financed.

The arena and other developments are estimated to cost a total of $862.9 million.